The Tell-Tale Stall

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 1:22 PM

The best indicator of how seriously this White House is involved in a political scandal may be how emphatically it refuses to comment.

By that standard, the CIA's destruction of its torture tapes is shaping up to be a doozy of a White House story.

At yesterday's briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino didn't even pretend to take reporters' questions about the tapes seriously. No matter what was asked, her answer was the same:

"I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department, who is working on the preliminary inquiry with the CIA. . . . I think that's a question that is best put to the Justice Department, and the Justice Department will be able to answer for you. . . . I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department. . . . I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department on that."

Perino, of course, knew full well that the Justice Department wouldn't say a thing, either.

"White House officials are refusing to answer any of these explosive questions," CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry complained on air yesterday.

CNN anchor John King responded: "A quick question, Ed. And I hope you won't refer me to the Justice Department. The White House is, you know, hiding -- my word, not theirs -- behind the lawyer question, saying they can't answer questions about this because the lawyers are all looking into it, there are ongoing investigations. I understand that to a degree from the legal perspective as the investigations go. But politically they must be cringing with Republicans in Congress questioning them, some of the lawyers involved in this case saying cover up, people saying 'what are you trying to hide?'"

Henry: "Absolutely. It's very difficult and it is a question of credibility. But I think the White House realizes that they have used this before.

"As you know, in the Scooter Libby case, they were able to deflect questions for probably a couple of years in that legal case by continually saying there is an ongoing investigation, an ongoing legal matter, we're not going to answer any questions. In the end, though, obviously they still took a political and a public relations hit. But they were able to sort of kick the can down the road for a couple of years."

And indeed, White House reporters waiting for a handout yesterday had nothing to write about.

But look what we get when reporters dig a little deeper on their own. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the Central Intelligence Agency between 2003 and 2005 about whether to destroy videotapes showing the secret interrogations of two operatives from Al Qaeda, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.

"The accounts indicate that the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged.

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